Local students join thousands to demand environmental action in D.C.
Energy, drive, time and technology— these are all things that youth have on their side, and none more so than the students leading the nation’s burgeoning environmental movement. Twelve thousand of these young leaders turned out for Powershift 2009, a climate change summit in Washington D.C. from Feb. 27 through March 2, to pound the Capitol with demands to change climate policy. Twenty-five environmentally proactive UC Santa Cruz students were among them.
Ashley Craig is a senior environmental studies major at UCSC and the co-chair of the school’s Education for a Sustainable Living Program (ESLP). Having returned from the event (“it wasn’t a conference, it was more like a revolution”) a few days earlier, she is more confident than ever in the abilities of youth to triumph over the planet’s current eco-woes.
“We are the force,” she says, gushing with positive certainty. “We are the generation that is going to make the changes, make these differences. The fact that there were 12,000 of us there is enough proof that we have the power to achieve climate change.”
She and a handful of other UCSC Powershift participants are seated in a circle on her living room floor, swapping highlights and memories. A slideshow of their photographs is projected onto a blank wall above the couch. Most of the images document the protest at the Capitol Power Plant on the third day of the gathering, during which an estimated 3,000 youth swarmed the 99-year-old coal-burning plant, blocking three entrances, marching around the perimeter, chanting and wielding signs with messages such as “Clean Energy Now!”
They group is still buzzing with the inspiration instilled in them by the slew of guest speakers (environmental hero Van Jones and Administrator of the EPA, Lisa Jackson, among them), workshops (on everything from how to talk to politicians and on public speaking to “class privilege and the environment”) and the infectious power of being part of a collective.
“It made me realize I’m not alone,” says Craig. “I know I’m not alone in this community, but sometimes Santa Cruz feels like a bubble. It was revitalizing and empowering to know that there are students in every state doing projects like ours.”
Students were able to exchange ideas and advice for starting campus sustainability projects throughout the four-day gathering. Craig and her fellow Slugs were happy to find that UCSC seemed to be ahead of the curve, especially when it came to ESLP, which many of them help to organize.
“Most schools are fighting for a sustainability program on their campus,” says Craig. “Not only do we have that, we have a class for credit. They were blown away when we told them that.”
Entirely student led and organized, ESLP enrolls 250 to 300 students each spring to participate in Action Research Teams (ARTs) and attend weekly lectures. This spring’s ARTs, each of which focuses on a specific theme for the quarter, include Eco Cities, UC and the Bomb, Personal Sustain
ability, Food Systems and more. The Santa Cruz students were able to share this program with their peers, boasting of its ability to recruit and engage more youth each year.
“It opens up the sustainability movement to up to 300 students every year,” says Eva Stevens, another ESLP organizer and Powershift attendee. “Because of it, we have the potential to inspire that many more students every school year.”
UCSC’s bike library was another big hit. A recently founded program that allows students to rent bicycles from the campus, the bike library was the brainchild of Sarah Olsen, UCSC’s Transportation Campaign Coordinator and ESLP organizer. She shared her project at a Powershift transportation workshop.
“The room was packed with kids who wanted to start something like the bike library,” she says.
But the party of UCSC students took many lessons of their own home, too. At the top of this list was the encouragement they received to “make the environmental movement more political.” Powershift gave them the training to back up this important message, culminating on Lobby Day when Powershift participants visited the Capitol Building and held meetings (a total of 350) with legislators from their hometown districts. Now that congressional season is ending, students plan on following up with their local congressmembers as they return to their districts. The UCSC students also plan to incorporate their newly learned skills in recruiting and utilizing social media into the local Santa Cruz movement (apparently nothing beats text messaging and Twitter for mass organizing).
“Twelve thousand other kids are going to go back to their towns and do this, too. It’s empowering,” says Olsen, bursting with confidence. If one follows the news, she says, the world can appear discouragingly depressing, and the grim state of the environment irreversible. But after Powershift ’09, Olsen and her peers refuse to feel resigned. “I don’t think at all that this is a blind hope,” she says of the climate change movement. “This is for sure the direction we’re heading in. We have no other choice.”